On Sunday night, Usain Bolt shot (quite literally) into the history books with his victory in the Olympics men’s 100-meter sprint in a time of 9.81 seconds.
The 79,000 capacity Maracana Olympic Stadium in Rio was packed to the rafters with spectators, many of their hearts pounding with the raw anticipation that they could be witnesses to a page about to be written in history.
Eight world-class sprinters assembled on the blue-coloured Mondo track on Sunday, all of them with nothing but victory on their minds. “Usain St. Leo Bolt,” as he refers to himself on Twitter was one of them; he was gunning for what would be his third straight Olympic gold medal in the 100m sprint event. It was also Bolt’s third straight Olympics since he broke into international limelight at the Beijing games in 2008.
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Bolt and everyone gathered to watch knew that if he came out tops on the night it would amount to a most extraordinary feat. As no one, male or female, living or dead, had ever before held the record for winning three consecutive Olympic 100m sprint events.
Eight years had passed since Bolt’s first Olympic win in China as a 22-year-old breakout starlet. Age was no longer on his side (he was going to be 30 years in a few days), and he had been having recent trouble with keeping his body injury-free.
Bolt was up against young spirited starlets like Canada’s Andre De Grasse, largely tipped as the greatest prospect in athletics; he was also up against America’s Justin Gatlin, who has had a chequered career thus far but was still one of the strongest challengers even at the age of 34.
Bolt had the weight of recent history behind him: he was the defending Olympic champion; he was also the world record holder in the 100m event (9.58 seconds). Perhaps more remarkably, he had the vast majority of the crowd in the Maracana Stadium rooting for him; they were just as clearly against Gatlin, the American, greeting his appearance on the track with loud boos.
Gatlin was the Olympic 100m gold medal winner in Athens in 2004, but he has repeatedly been enmeshed in controversies over his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
When the start gun rent the air in the super-charged atmosphere in Rio, it was Gatlin who got off to a brilliant start. He reacted perfectly to the pistol and rose quickest, giving him an early lead around the 40m mark. Bolt, who is renowned for his characteristic slow start, had to come from behind, shifting into top gear around the second half of the race to finish in a time of 9.81 seconds, which by Usain Bolt’s standards can be considered relatively tame.
On this occasion, however, breaking speed records was hardly Bolt’s objective. He holds the current world record in the sport and at his age, no one realistically expected him to attempt to break the sound barrier. The record on this occasion was winning a third 100m gold medal, and Bolt had still managed to do it with style. His closest competition, Gatlin, finished second and grabbed the silver medal finished at 9.89 seconds; De Grasse, the budding 21-year-old hopeful, took bronze in 9.91 seconds.
“It was brilliant,” Bolt said after the race. “I didn’t go so fast, but I’m so happy I won. I told you guys I was going to do it.” An elated Bolt posed for pictures in his trademark archer-strike pose before doing a victory lap around the stadium draped in the Jamaican flag while greeting and acknowledging wild cheers from fans.
Bolt said further:
“I’m really happy but I expected to go faster, with the turnaround time between the semi-finals and final we normally have two hours, but we had one hour 20 minutes, it was challenging. But I’m just happy that I won and that’s the key thing.”
Despite serving as his own critic, Bolt had clearly done the extraordinary – he had broken another pre-existing human limitation and shattered the assumption that no one athlete could remain in perfect physical and mental shape across the eight or more years that would be required to win three consecutive 100m Olympic gold medals.
On Sunday night in Rio, Bolt had done more than enough to guarantee his status as a legend; he had earned his admittance into a pantheon of greats that includes the likes of Muhammad Ali, Pele, and Michael Jordan. He said himself in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that he wanted his name thrown in with the middle of these greats.
Bolt, however, still his eyes on hauling in more medals in Rio. He is scheduled to participate in the 200m on Tuesday and is a member of Jamaica’s 4x100m relay team. On Sunday night Bolt quipped, “Somebody said I can become immortal, two more medals to go and I can sign off. Immortal.”
Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said of Bolt, “His legacy will depend on what he does with the rest of his life,” adding that “the best is if he goes around giving clinics and travels the world like Muhammad Ali and becomes well known in Africa and Asia and is someone that everybody loves.”